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April 1989

Scene from one of Ralph and Karen’s pyjama parties

Scene from one of Ralph and Karen’s pyjama parties

New Tape-beatles, Old Appeal

by Ralph Johnson, Retrofuturism Staff Critic

Could the Tape-beatles be getting hip after all these years?

Several disturbing hints of such late-blooming activity have been detected recently — clowning around on the David Letterman show, hitting the charts for the first time in a decade with a techno-pop version of the John Cage piece ‘Fontana Mix.’

At their appearance Friday at the Art Department of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, it was their invigorating, self-effacing attitude that really told the story.

After a 25-year career playing Don Juan to matronly audio fantasies, the Tape-beatles appear to have settled into a role that simultaneously fulfills the expectations of their cultivated listeners and lets them treat the ogling with the respect it deserves.

For artists turning 99 this year, the Tape-beatles are a remarkable specimen, trim, fit and their throbbing edits completely intact. They are practiced veterans of tape-techniques, ending every piece with a regulation big finish, working up the listeners with undulating mixes, sustained deconstructions, feeding the broad-stroked machine �sthetics with a procession of material designed to fuel the frenzy of their spectacle-enthralled listeners.

Adoring fans

One after another, middle-aged Sound-enthusiasts sporting cassettes approached ring-side and received sound bites, which they invariably gobbled into open-eared audio duels. The Tape-beatles would laugh and hobble away, holding one ear as if deafened.

They do not talk about committing theft but rather of commodification, consumption and production; all foreplay. They wear their tumescence like a badge, talking about their plan to reclaim culture and denying the possibility of theft. They play the amiable rogue, defusing the audiences original intention with good-natured plagiarism and then delivering yet another theft-laden piece with a sly, naughty twinkle.

It is an ingenious act, honed to near perfection. They come across like a mercantile capitalist with the abundant self-confidence to steal and sell back their audience’s prurient fantasies, holding in reserve the sense of who they really are. On stage, they are who they want to be, and they are only too glad to oblige.

Not having a big hit on rock stations and dance clubs effectively changed their audience. The Art Building at St. Ambrose was filled with middle-aged audio artists, stuffed into party dresses they used to fit into with greater ease, and they squealed like teenyboppers at every edit.

The Tape-beatles took it all with becoming equanimity, giving as good as they got, grinning their way through it with the bemused smile of a master of manipulation. As kinds of elder statesmen of the bespectacled-marketplace, they have earned their unique status and relaxed demeanor, and nobody else does a Tape-beatle any better.

This item first appeared in PhotoStatic Magazine no. 35.

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